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I’ve been thinking about the situation we are in. The isolation. The ever present sense of danger. The feeling that we are entirely at the mercy of our environment. And it struck me that the psychology of it is not unlike that of extreme environments - think space or Antarctica.
An extreme environment, in psychological terms, is one that places high demands on our emotional, physical, cognitive or social capabilties. What those demands are depends upon the environment.
So, for example, an isolated environment may lead to profound social and sensory deprivation. Whereas a more chaotic environment is going to lead to sensory overload.
Let’s think of this in terms of where we are now. For those of us who are in lockdown alone, an ENORMOUS challenge is the loss of social interaction, the long periods of boredom, the lack of physical contact with others.
For those of us isolating with families, it’s almost the opposite. Being constantly surrounded by the same group of people, even though we love them, can be overwhelming, fraught, can create a case of sensory overload when your kids JUST WILL NOT STOP TOUCHING YOU!
When we think of stress, we need to remember that there is bad stress and good stress (eustress). If we are going to maintain an optimal level of health and functioning, we need a certain amount of stress in our lives.
For those people who are alone, who have been unable to work, there’s a good chance they are experiencing a drop in those challenges that we need to get us through the day. You do not have enough of a load. That is tough
For those of us trying to work and homeschool and being constantly surrounded by people, the demands upon our time and energy are too much. That is also tough.
Research into space flight has suggested that up to six weeks, there is an acute adaptation period, marked by anxiety and emotionality. After 6 weeks, the sense of isolation, the monotony really start to have an effect. We get bored, irritable. We feel like this will never end.
Lots of people are saying they are struggling to concentrate, that they are simultaneously exhausted and unable to sleep.
Crew members who winter over in the Antarctic commonly report low levels of energy, mood fluctuations, depression, insomnia and irritability. Bear in mind, these Antarctic crew are screened for their capacity to bear this intense social isolation.
Even so, a significant proportion experience mood disorders and sleep disorders. This sense of being trapped is EXTREMELY difficult for us as a species.
Antarctic crews typically report things like fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, sleeping difficulties, a depressed mood and sense of tension. Ability to pay attention to things is severely compromised, resulting in what’s called the Antarctic stare
The Antarctic stare is a sense of fugue, where people lose the ability to concentrate and will simply stare into space. "A 10m stare in a 5m room"
This difficulty in cognition is seen in space crews too. The alternate effects of monotony and high stress lead to astronauts reporting memory loss, lapses in concentration, increased reaction time and increased error rate.
Those who REALLY work hard, determined NOT to make errors, then report more fatigue. The sum of this is, it is absolutely EXHAUSTING to do your normal job in a situation of extreme stress.
If you are finding it hard to concentrate, if things are taking SO much longer than normal, that is an entirely standard thing to experience in this kind of situation.
The factors that make these situations tougher are degree of isolation, ambiguity of the mission (including when it will end), degree of powerlessness, feelings of boredom and a sense of danger and threat. Check, check, check… Hmmm.
Things that Antarctic crews have found to help: good nutrition and dietary supplements (particualrly vitamin D), placing an emphasis on physical exercise in order to improve mood, using a Lightbox such as a SAD lamp to help restore balance to your circadian rhythm,
maintaining a routine, and making sure to communicate as much as possible with your support network. The biggest thing to take away from this though? Don’t judge yourself for struggling. Don’t judge yourself for crying or shouting or finding this all impossibly tough.
It IS impossibly tough. It is tough enough that trained specialists struggle when put in situations like this. But the other thing is, they recover. When the situation has passed, they are able to return to normal functioning.
This is tough. But it will not be forever. And we will make it through.
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